For most families during this quarantine, they’re spending a lot more time with their kids than normal, and while this can definitely be a good thing, is there potentially a negative affect at play? I’m wondering how quarantine will affect kids’ attachment to parents and caregivers, because after all of this is over and things go back to normal (hopefully), I have a feeling some kids may not be too happy to be spending as much time away from their family again, as evidenced by my own kid.
My 2-year-old son kicked his separation anxiety issues once he started attending a parents' morning out program a couple of times a week, but now that our family has been in quarantine for more than a month, he gets really upset if my husband or I leave the house. As in he gets upset when we just go get the mail or to take the garbage out. And this sort of thing is happening with many other parents and their children I know. I hope this isn’t our new normal and everyone's kid will be OK with being dropped off again — especially for those of us who just recently nipped that anxiety in the bud. But for now, what’s going on in their brains?
Dr. Stephanie Wong, a clinical psychologist, tells Romper that spending 24/7 with your kids can absolutely lead to separation anxiety, especially with toddlers or infants as they use you for comfort and security whenever they want. "When this is no longer the case, the child will need to adjust to the change and some may have a more difficult time than others ... it is important to note that, developmentally, most toddlers experience some level of separation anxiety from their caregivers, and it is not necessarily indicative of ongoing problematic behaviors.”
Dr. Carla Manly, also a clinical psychologist, echoes Wong's sentiments and says that my son’s reaction is definitely normal. “Given the stressful circumstances, he is simply attached to you and your husband in an age-appropriate way,” she says. “His responses are fear-based and understandable given the insecurity he feels right now.”
Katie Lear, a licensed clinical mental health counselor notes, “Many children are craving a lot more cuddle time and positive attention from parents right now, because this increases their sense of safety and helps to soothe anxiety.”
“Right now, lots of children are feeling more vulnerable and their routines are off, which makes the world feel less predictable and safe,” Lear adds. “When a child is in a highly stressful situation, it is common to see some regression in their behavior.” Lear says that in addition to clinginess, difficulty sleeping, or renewed issues with potty training can also happen.
As far as when things do go back to normal (fingers crossed) and we start having a regular routine like we had before, will all of our kids suddenly struggle with separation anxiety? “It's possible that being away from school and day care may lead to increased anxiety when it's time to separate from a parent again,” says Lear. “This is especially true for children who are already prone to anxiety, since regularly facing a fear helps to extinguish anxiety over time.”
But the good thing is that everyone knows children are pretty resilient, and may bounce back from stressful moments without any lasting side effects, Lear says. So basically, don't panic yet.
And if you want to sort of prep your child for a return to normalcy, Wong says you can try to maintain a schedule now and set up some structure and routine throughout the day.
She also makes an interesting point about staying in touch with other family members via apps or FaceTime. “An important aspect of the routine is contact with peers and relatives, such as video-chatting with peers or a relative teaching them a song or assisting them with homework. This will ensure your child is not solely relying on you to meet all her needs, and will assist parents in transitioning their children back to an environment with peers and teachers.”
But for now, just do what you can. Manly says when life settles down, your child will regain their independence. So just soothe them when they need you, try not to create additional stress, and "try picking them up and taking them out to the mailbox with you so he will feel reassured and safe.” Hey, any adventure out of the house is an adventure worth having.
Dr. Stephanie Wong, clinical psychologist
Dr. Carla Manly, clinical psychologist and author of Joy From Fear: Create the Life of. Your Dreams By Making Fear Your Friend
Katie Lear, licensed mental health counselor, play therapist, and drama therapist